The annual U.S. Navy Blue Angels Air Show is a huge event for Pensacola Beach, Fla. In just one day, this quiet beach town can swell into a small metropolis with more than 250,000 anxious fans flocking to the emerald waters to see death-defying maneuvers performed by the Navy’s finest pilots.

But on July 12, 2008, that showcase event turned into a nightmare as a huge thunderstorm cell swept over the islandparadise and created a public safety meltdown. A major problem accompanying this weather event was that shelter was limited for the thousands who were trapped on the beach when the storm hit. Condominium and hotel lobbies quickly became areas of refuge from the lightning, torrential rains, and flying debris that eventually hospitalized 12 patrons of the show. Good event pre-planning and professional execution of an emergency plan probably prevented loss of life.

Any event, whether a large public street party, a convention for thousands, or a wedding in a hotel ballroom, presents certain risks that can put the planner into the role of crisis manager in a heartbeat. Without effective planning for disasters or security issues, venues and organizers can unknowingly place themselves, and their attendees, in precarious situations. 

Communication Is Your Best Friend
Communication is one of the most important tools in an event planner’s toolbox. Build solid relationships with local public safety and emergency management officials well before your event if it is going to involve any large gatherings at private or public facilities, but it is especially important for outdoor gatherings. Getting to know key personnel on a first-name basis and including them in the planning process will reap many rewards in executing a flawless event.

The components of a Pre-Event Emergency Action Plan often vary, depending on the type of event, crowd anticipated, weather, and venue. However, the main point to remember is that the process is the plan. Translation: the very effort of getting serious about event safety is the first step toward a successful outcome. Some main areas of focus are:

Anticipated Size of Crowd. Knowing in advance how many people will be attending is critical in order to arrange your resources to accommodate fire codes, evacuation plans, and other important logistical issues. Meeting with your local Fire Marshall ahead of time will help you plan how to legally manage the crowd and offer safe exits from the area, if necessary.

Purpose of Gathering.Whether your venue will be used for a convention, wedding, company party, political rally, or protest (sometimes associated with large association meetings) often determines the type and level of resources necessary. In simple terms, will the crowd be happy or is there a potential for conflict? Protests and political rallies are always vulnerable to tempers and expressions of anger, which can turn into chaos if not managed properly. Local law enforcement must be alerted ahead of time and invited to help in event planning to lessen the chances of things getting out of control. Additionally, events that serve alcohol can produce impaired patrons who might need more assistance in an evacuation scenario.

Emergency Medical Services Preplanning.If your event will involve attendance in excess of, let’s say, 1,000 people, contact your local EMS provider and arrange a meeting. Medical First Responders will be interested in staging areas at the event site to set up a triage area to serve patrons who might need assistance. Also, they will want to pre-plan the best place to set up an LZ, or landing zone, for a med-evac helicopter.

Weather Conditions for Outdoor Events.As mentioned above, the Pensacola Beach Air Show incident is a prime example of how weather can transform a relaxing event into a chaotic ordeal. Event planners should develop relationships with their regional National Weather Service office and learn how to get quick and accurate forecasts and changing weather condition alerts. Events happening during extreme heat situations should include planning for hydration stations with plenty of fluids and, if possible, the presence of portable fans that produce a water mist that can bring down skin temperature for treatment and prevention of heat exhaustion and heat stroke. Don’t forget that you must communicate the location of your hydration stations to the crowd regularly.

If thunderstorms are possible, where will you evacuate outdoor patrons for refuge? What is your policy for canceling your event due to impending storms? These are issues that must be decided with clear parameters during the planning process and not during a weather emergency.

Broadcast Your Commitment to Safety.Second only to the actual process of emergency planning is the declaration that you are ready for an emergency. Believe it or not, your attendees do appreciate the fact that the event organizers are committed to safety and are prepared to respond in case there is a need. After you have crafted your emergency action plan, have a PDF link available when advertising your event, and on your Web site.

Working the Updated Facility Plan. Event facilities should have an updated Emergency Action Plan of their own. These plans should deal with crime, overcrowding, evacuations, fires, bomb threats, and many other issues. Make it a high priority to get a copy of the venue’s plan at the onset of the planning process. A good emergency plan will establish the crucial communications process that will offer clarity through pre-defined procedures and notifications protocols. 

Note: Most hotels and convention centers have pre-established relationships with local first responders, freeing event planners of that task.    

Learn From the Mistakes of Others

History is always the best teacher! When developing the Emergency Action Plan for your event, study the successes and mistakes that others have experienced during times of crisis.  By studying what has happened in the past, and what should have been done during an emergency in order to improve the situation, planners can better anticipate what to do in case their event is challenged by an unexpected circumstance.

Tommy Jones is the fire chief in Griffin, Ga. With 25 years of experience, Chief Jones delivers lectures on crisis communications and is passionate about helping organizations better prepare themselves for crisis events. He holds a bachelor’s degree in communications from Mercer University in Macon, Ga., and a master’s degree in public administration from Columbus State University in Columbus, Ga. He can be reached at TJones@cityofgriffin.com